Ricketts could appoint himself to fill U.S. Senate seat, but should he?

Past governors haven’t fared well after appointing themselves or arranging for it

By: - October 6, 2022 9:09 pm

Gov. Pete Ricketts talks to Capt. Jared L. Baker, left, outgoing commander of the 1057th Military Police Company and Capt. Grant J. Hewitt, the inbound commander of the 1057th, during a visit to Kuwait earlier this year for a change of command ceremony. (Courtesy of Nebraska National Guard Capt. Brittney Truscott)

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts ought to consider appointing himself to the U.S. Senate, or making that happen, some political observers said Thursday, even though the track record for such moves isn’t great.

Some Nebraska Republicans, on background, predicted Ricketts would not appoint himself, though they, too, felt he should consider it.

With the expected resignation of U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., to become the president of the University of Florida, Ricketts is in position to select a successor to fill the seat until the 2024 elections.

Governors have appointed themselves

Several times in U.S. history, sitting governors have appointed themselves to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, or resigned so their former lieutenant governors could make the appointment.

But should Ricketts consider a similar move? Would there be blowback? Historically — and Ricketts is a history buff — several governors who either appointed themselves or resigned to be appointed didn’t fare well in subsequent elections.

J.L. Spray, a Lincoln lawyer and Republican National Committeeman, said Ricketts won’t “rush into any kind of a decision” but said he should think about it.

I think he should consider a whole group of people who are qualified and will accept the position, and will run hard. And that includes himself,” Spray said.

Randy Adkins, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor, said it would be a no-brainer for Ricketts to give himself the job.

A good choice

Ricketts’ other likely political futures, Adkins said, are as an “also-ran” presidential candidate or as a member of a GOP president’s cabinet, in a post such as secretary of Agriculture. Or he could appoint himself to a safe GOP seat in the U.S. Senate.

“The rational choice, to me, is that he’s going to be interested in this (Senate) job himself,” Adkins said. “He has to seriously consider it. And I think people are going to urge him to consider it.”

John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said Ricketts has moved to the right in recent months and is well-positioned to be “a U.S. senator from Nebraska.”

Next governor could appoint

Hibbing and others raised an interesting scenario: that the Senate post goes unfilled until the new governor takes office in January. That is likely to be a Ricketts ally, University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, who could then appoint Ricketts to Sasse’s seat.

Nebraska Lt. Gov. Mike Foley
Nebraska Lt. Gov. Mike Foley presides over the Nebraska Legislature. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

Remember, Lt. Gov. Mike Foley endorsed Pillen’s primary rival, Falls City businessman Charles Herbster. So Ricketts’ resigning to let Foley make the appointment might come with risks.

Ricketts could also appoint a “placeholder” to occupy the Senate seat until the 2024 election. Spray said that could be someone such as former Gov. Kay Orr or former Omaha Mayor and U.S. Rep. Hal Daub.

That would open the possibility for Ricketts to run for the seat in 2024, which has been speculated by some observers.

Former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr
Former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr in the Rotunda at the Nebraska Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Lincoln. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examinerz)

Ricketts, a 58-year-old Republican, is in the final three months of his second term as governor and cannot run again because of term limits.

In 2006, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against incumbent U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, so, pundits say, Ricketts has an interest in serving in Washington.

Ricketts ran for U.S. Senate

While Ricketts has been coy about his plans after leaving office, speculation around the State Capitol has always centered on his angling for a cabinet job in a GOP administration, perhaps U.S. Commerce secretary, or testing the waters for a presidential bid or getting on a ticket as a vice presidential candidate.

His family, which owns the Chicago Cubs and founded TD Ameritrade, are major donors to Republican campaigns, so financially, he would have backing. But the GOP field of possible presidential candidates is crowded and includes former President Donald Trump as well as governors with bigger national profiles, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Track record not good

Appointing oneself to the U.S. Senate has some political risks, historically.

One famous case involved Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, who resigned in 1976 so his lieutenant governor could appoint Anderson to the Senate to replace Walter Mondale. But two years later, Anderson, a Democrat, was defeated in his attempt to retain his seat.

In Wyoming, Gov. John Hickey appointed himself U.S.senator in 1961, but one year later, Hickey lost an election to retain the seat.

In 2008, then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich considered appointing himself to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the election of Barack Obama as president. In the end, Blagojevich appointed someone else, and then was impeached, indicted and convicted of soliciting bribes from potential candidates for the Senate post.

Hibbing, the UNL political scientist, said, Nebraska voters might “raise their eyebrows a bit” if Ricketts appointed himself. But in a GOP-dominated state like Nebraska, he said it would certainly not cost him an election.

Adkins, at UNO, said the ultimate judges of whether it would be appropriate for Ricketts to fill the vacancy himself would be the voters in 2024.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.